If human rights is the standard, then the West’s long-standing China policy is a dismal failure

From the Straits Times this morning:

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Twenty years after the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China, the city is on its way to becoming just another Chinese city, with all of the same level of freedoms – or lack thereof. While this might seem to be mostly of interest to the people living in Hong Kong, it’s actually the latest indication that the West’s nearly four-decade-long policy toward China has been a miserable failure.

When Nixon went to China, the primary goal was to open a new front in the Cold War by co-opting the world’s other leading Communist state as an ally against the Soviet Union. But once Deng Xioping began his economic reforms in 1978, China became the hot potential market for Western business. It had almost a billion people at the time (1.3 billion now) and the possibility of fast growth since it was a developing country. China played its hand well. It continued to tightly control its economy and managed its integration into the world economy, using a mercantilist approach that allowed it to become the low-cost manufacturer for the world. Back in Hong Kong, once the lease was up in 1997, the UK handed it back to China with the promise that many British-style freedoms would be preserved, but not all Hong Kongers see that happening.

Now China is an ascendant economic – and increasingly military – world power. Those facts are not necessarily cause for concern. I don’t believe the U.S. has some divine right to be a global hegemon. Also, regarding Hong Kong, it was proper that the UK surrender it. After all, it was carved out China as part of its so-called Century of Humiliation, when Western powers took advantage of China’s internal weakness to exploit it, including acting as drug pushers. (And let’s be honest, who was going to stop China from re-taking Hong Kong? Was the UK or the US going to go to war?)

So, again, the issue is not that China is rising. It’s the fact that its record of individual human rights is terrible. I’m all for criticizing the West when it deserves it (and for sure it does, many times over), but I also believe that the development of individual rights and freedoms pioneered in the West is a gift to humanity. Many policymakers in the West claim to believe this, too. And if fact, much of the West’s engagement with China was sold to Western citizens as an attempt to persuade the Chinese government to agree that human rights mattered.

But now we see what’s happening in Hong Kong. Whatever freedoms did exist there are surely to be mostly lost. Hong Kong was supposed to help China learn the value of human rights. Seemingly not. Western investment in China was supposed to do the trick. Not so far. Encouraging Chinese participation in the world economy would surely work. Nope. So many failed theories. And now, if trend lines continue, it’s on track to be the pre-eminent world power. The power of the 21st century. And without a commitment to Western-style human rights. We all get to see how that plays out for human history.

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